What happens when you learn to do genealogy right

I have written about switching from Family Tree Maker to RootsMagic.  I made the switch without too much trouble, but am now discovering the after-effects.  The problem, though, isn’t with the switch per se but with a combination of the citations in Family Tree Maker and with my own earlier mistakes.  I’m discovering all this while working on one of my brick walls, Barber Nichols of RI/Canada/NY.  I’ve been wanting to follow the advice of genealogist Dr. Thomas Jones and write a report on what I know so far.  The idea is that the writing process brings out new research paths as one thinks things through.  When writing the report I want to use proper citations.  The problem is that most of my citations are not in good Evidence Explained form.  This partly due to how FTM creates citations for things it downloads, and of course partly my own ignorance.

I started with FTM back in the 90s when I knew much less about formal genealogy.  I connected with Ancestry.com and started having FTM pull down whatever relevant records it could.  It’s great clicking a few buttons and getting a whole census records added to your tree, but there are at least four problems with this approach:

  1. The data downloaded is produced by transcribers.  One does not know if the transcription is correct unless you compare it against the original.
  2. Ancestry does not transcribe every field, so if you just rely on the automatic download you can miss information.
  3. The census citations, and probably many others, are in a strange format.  While the citations are not horrible they are not real great, either, lacking things like dwelling and family numbers.
  4. If you don’t examine the documents yourself, you can miss family and neighbors that might be useful in tracking down an ancestor.

Unfortunately I have a lot of records I pulled down straight from Ancestry.  While cleaning up Barber’s citations I went back to each individual download record and transcribed it from scratch and found I had earlier missed a lot of things.

Another problem, and one more of my own, is that the citation quality varied on records that I did enter myself.  At some point FTM did add a rough form of Evidence Explained templates, and I tried to fill them out, but not having the book at that time I didn’t really know what I was doing.  I had some of those to clean up as well.

A final issue is that in the past I sometimes relied on other people’s transcriptions for records I was entering.  This included transcriptions from the web as well as the OCR version of passages from Google books.  As I reviewed these more carefully I found a number of mistakes, which of course shouldn’t be a surprise.  I kept the copied transcriptions but went through them word by word and fixed any mistakes.

So, what are my conclusions for new genealogists?  For maximum efficiency from the start  it would be great if one could transcribe everything themselves and create proper citations on their own, or at least use citation templates intelligently.  The problem is that this will kill the hobby for most new enthusiasts.  It’s the thrill of making new connections to ancestors that gets one interested, not doing documentation.  The problem there, of course, is that we get the kind of junk trees that we see on the web along with a lot of rework later on if one gets more serious.

I think RootsMagic has a fair balance on this.  The stricter genealogists can always create their citations from scratch in free form.  For those who want some help, though, RootsMagic has a decent template system, much more detailed than Family Tree Maker’s.  To help newer genealogists, though, it would be nice having templates for more common types of records, such as from from Ancestry and FamilySearch.  I know that the risk is that people would get too locked into online records from the two giants, but it would help people get better citations early on.  I’ve started to make some of my own templates from the sources I use the most.

An alternative is just to relax and let new genealogists have fun with whatever tools and sources they use while teaching good practice in whatever ways are possible.

It would be a big help, though, if online sources gave better formats for their citations. This isn’t just an issue with Ancestry. The citation examples at FamilySearch are also in a sort of minimal format that actually provides less information than Ancestry does, at least for the census records I’m looking at.

And yes, I know that there are people who find the whole Evidence Explained approach to citations way over-complicated.  I’ll write more on that in a future posting.  And  I’ll be thinking more about the best ways to efficiently and correctly track your genealogical findings.

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15 Responses to What happens when you learn to do genealogy right

  1. Pingback: how are some more certain of everything than i am of anything?…. » Blog Archive » weekend.

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  3. Mary Beth says:

    Thank you for this post. I thought it was just my problem, but you’ve experienced all of the problems and frustrations I’ve had. The only solution that might work is to suspend all other activity for a year (two years?) and clean up my citations. I have the information for most of them; it’s just not in the right format. Perhaps “I’ll think about that tomorrow.”

    • It took me a few weeks to straighten out the citations for the one person I was working on, Barber Nichols, so I don’t think I’m going to think about fixing up the entire tree. For now I’ll just fix up citations as I run into them, and of course enter new ones properly.

      • I got to thinking more that my comment about taking a few weeks to fix one person’s record may be needlessly depressing. I had a pile of information on him, and I was able to clean up the sources for some of his children at the same time. It is still a major task, though.

  4. Rorey Cathcart says:

    I am deep in the middle of this mess myself right now. I’m in the process of basically re-researching my husband’s branch and citing it to EE/GPS level. Because I host my personal genealogy on the web using my Ancestry gedcom I have to stick with it and make due. I gave this alot of thought. I’ve used Legacy, PAF and FTM. I just find I’m not willing to use a desktop system. I like being able to instantly jump to an image associated with an Ancestry fact so that I can try to glean additional information from it. I don’t want to have to download every image from Ancestry into RootsMagic or Legacy, attach it multiple places, then create a media excluded gedcom for upload to web (copyright issues). The work around I’ve come to is that I create the EE citation, enclose it in {}, and place it in the transcription section of the citation. Though I’m left with Ancestry’s gobbledygook citation on my website and the EE version I can quickly glean out the proper citation from the brackets for my writing purposes. For datapoints I bring in from outside Ancestry, such as FamilySearch or GenealogyBank, I directly create the correct citation.

    For beginners the advice I always try to emphasize is that the citation is your way of finding the information again. If you can get back to it or can get someone else to it that is a good place to start. Not everyone moves on to the next level. But they definitely wont if we kill the fun by insisting on perfect sourcing from the outset.

    Sure would love it though if we could get an industry standard across all platforms for source writting .

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  6. Yes, that would be tricky trying to do it that way all online. I also need to get to my tree from different computers, so I use Dropbox to synchronize all of the files. Then I install RootsMagic on each of my computers. It is a bit more complicated than all this because I also share the files with my sister, but for one person Dropbox should work fine. Have you considered that? Your data files and images would be written to a folder in your Dropbox directories and then they would automatically go to your other computers. If you need to do this on computers you don’t control, though, this won’t work so well.

    • Rorey Cathcart says:


      I went back and read your post about switching programs. Very informative and helpful. I may re-evalute RootsMagic in the future. Right now though my two main sources of clients are my Ancestry.com trees and my personal website using the gedcom from Ancestry on a TNG (The Next Generation of Genealogy Site Building) platform. The nice thing about have my master currently on Ancestry is I can access it via login from any computer, anywhere, anytime. I can also access all my media via my personal site the same way. Still, I think the future likely will require me to move over to a desktop platform. Thank you for the excellent synopsis of the program and your experience converting to it.

      • Ok, if you need to get to your tree from any computer then the Dropbox solution won’t work so well. To have at least some desktop software have you considered Family Tree Maker now that you can sync it to Ancestry? Or aren’t you at one computer enough?

      • Rorey Cathcart says:

        Beirne (one of my surnames, i might add),

        You’ve given me alot to think about. I know that several members on the forum for my website database software use RootsMagic and swear by it. I am early enough in my rework to consider another software program without too much difficulty. I wonder though, how – or even if – you are utilizing Ancestry.com with it. Are you downloading images of every census, WWI draft card, etc into your RootsMagic program? Are you uploading a gedcom into Ancestry to share? Are you publishing your personal genealogy in any other format?

        Also, in case you are not following him, Randy Seaver over at his blog http://www.geneamusings.com/ has done a whole series on his RootsMagic experience. He might have some insightful tips for your own adventure in this program.

  7. Rorey,

    We’ll need to talk about the Beirne part. Check out http://www.werelate.org/wiki/Person:Mary_O%27Beirne_%281%29 for my great-grandmother who had it as a surname.

    I don’t think I’m a RootsMagic fanboy (yet) but I’m real happy I switched from FTM. I still have an Ancestry subscription, which I use the way I use FamilySearch:
    1. Download the image
    2. Create the citation.
    3. Transcribe or abstract the relevant portions and put in in the source.
    4. Add the image to the source.

    Downloading the image isn’t that hard and I’m better off getting my own information off of it. It takes longer but I end up with more complete information.

    I have several trees posted on Ancestry, including some old GEDCOM uploads and a treesync from when I was still using FTM 2012. I also have parts of it on WeRelate, as seen above. I’ve uploaded a tree or two to WeRelate since I started using RootsMagic. I haven’t uploaded so much to Ancestry recently just because I like WeRelate, but will probably put stuff on Ancestry again.

    I’ll check out geneamusings and see what he says about RootsMagic.

    • Rorey Cathcart says:

      This is one of my personal genealogical websites that is currently under revamp construction but here is my Michael Francis Beirn – http://www.ihopetospeed.com/getperson.php?personID=P372&tree=CassityCathcart. Check out the first pdf link on his page for a brief bio also.
      I work from up to 3 different computers at home depending on the circumstances but it isn’t as if I couldn’t house the software on my home server for access from any point. I worry a bit about not having the latest and greatest database at my fingertips truly online. But really, when it comes down to it, I think my primary objection is logging a census to all the individuals it relates to in a desktop program as opposed to the automatic linking that Ancestry.com does. The vast majority of my census data has better than 7, and up to 15 individuals. That’s hours upon hours worth of individual linking on a single line. Lazy I know, but true.

  8. Michael Francis Beirn was born about the time of my oldest Beirne ancestor, Bernard. I’m stuck at that point and am focusing on other brick walls where I can at least get information. Ireland is the toughest of my ancestries.
    I do my genealogy work on two computers at home and sometimes a work one. By using Dropbox, which I mentioned earlier, you can get at the same files from each of your computers, even when you are away from home with a laptop. Each computer gets a synchronized copy of the files. Just make sure you don’t have the genealogy program running on two computers at once.
    I understand what you are saying about connecting to the Ancestry documents. Doing what I wrote above has definitely slowed down my data gathering. I’ll try not to preach, but here are the advantages to entering the information from Ancestry documents manually:

    1. Ancestry does not transcribe all of the information, so you still have to go through each record and manually enter what it missed.
    2. Ancestry’s citations are mediocre. It is nice that they include a link to the document in Ancestry but they do not provide much information on who the record is for, which page number, etc. Look at some Ancestry sources and try to figure out how you would find the document if Ancestry goes out of business or if someone does not subscribe to the service.
    3. Getting your information off the document gives you a chance to see what else is there. For example, when looking at a census record you should also be noting neighbors and other people with the same last name. This will help you find non-obvious family connections. This is how you build Elizabeth Shown Mill’s FAN Club.

    With RootsMagic, at least, the first citation on a census is the hardest. You still have to do a citation for each person, of course, but after the first person usually the only difference is the dwelling and family numbers. Also, you can copy and paste a citation for each piece of information about the same person and you can have each citation share the image you downloaded.

    • Rorey Cathcart says:

      Michael is my dead end on the Beirn line right now. I have some amazinging information about him that isn’t on the web yet – saving it for my own blog article in the next few weeks – but nothing to indicate his parents.I am dreading this particular surname study because of the number of name variants. And the fact that it’s Philadelphia, not a small city in 1850. I am also pursuing his children’s baptismal records through the Archdiocese. I have had success on another surname by researching the sponsor/witnesses to a baptism which yielded married aunt’s names.

      I’m with you on Ancestry’s warts. I specifically resolve the poor sourcing by editing the source at the individual level and adding in brackets a full and correct EE source for all my direct Ancestry links. I transcribe relevant information for each individual into the event description field for easy reference. However, by downloading only the page your ancestor is on, eg in the census, you lose the surrounding context. Close relatives are not only on the same page but in the pages before and after.

      I certainly hesitate at the work involved in committing myself to a desktop platform. But my primary concern has to do with the number of clients that come to me because of my Ancestry trees. If I’m not there I give up a major source of advertising and step away from the folks that gave me the push to switch to pro in the first place. Maybe the answer is dual platforms for awhile. Keep my Ancestry trees current but begin to rebuild my databases in RootsMagic.

      Lots to think about. Best Wishes.

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